Pete Martin: How the Scots lost Scotch

Nowadays it seems Scottishness has fallen out of favour with admen – some entertaining foreign kitsch aside – even when it comes to selling our national drink, writes Pete Martin

HOW come the great brands of Scotch are not particularly Scottish? That’s one of the great ironies of international marketing.

Certainly, it’s true that all brands aim to build on what makes them different. Since all “Scotch” is equally “Scottish”, nationality in itself brings no competitive distinction. So perhaps it is not surprising that Scottishness plays little part in our major whisky brands’ thinking.

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For example, Johnnie Walker is the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky. The blend bestrides the globe with an elegant golden squiggle, still recognisable as a jaunty chap in top hat and boots. The simple strapline “Keep walking” plays well internationally, even if it sounds like something a Scottish chief constable might say in his annual blitz on drink-driving.

In turn, Chivas Regal sets out its stall with “chivalry” in 60 markets worldwide. Over at J&B Rare, they can “start a party” with hangover-inducing Euro-electro-funk anywhere you like. Even Teachers, the top-selling blended Scotch whisky in India, appeals to aspiring Indians with “the spirit of achievement”.

As a result, the major Scotch brands are marketed without much reference to Scotland, overt or otherwise. That kind of home-spun kitsch is left to massive brands like Bagpiper or McDowells, which, with the exception of Johnnie Walker, outsell every other Scotch globally. There’s only one thing about the tartan-clad piper on the Bagpiper label that may give the game away though, and that’s the turban on his head. For all their Scottish affectations, these brands of molasses whisky are made in India, and massively protected by import tariffs on real Scotch.

Looking to Europe, you can find some examples of genuine Scotch marketing which play sympathetically to Scottish cultural cues. For example, the Clan Campbell brand – owned by Pernod Ricard – has a long-running, strangely compelling campaign that portrays Scotland as a dark, almost Tolkein-esque landscape. At the other extreme in Germany, they’re having a laugh with the “Scotch price” brand Deans. The advertising depicts a kilted man in a camp pastiche of the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing up.

But perhaps you’re wondering why these brands are fairly unfamiliar to you back in Scotland? Of course, you’ve heard of Johnnie Walker and Chivas. You may even recall the days when Teachers Whisky was advertised in the vernacular. I remember being struck by the outdoor poster as a schoolboy. By the railway bridge at Perth station, a bodacious young blonde stood in front of a chalkboard with a gown and mortar board hat, cane in hand, with the immortal line, “Ye cannae whack a Teachers”.

The reality nowadays is that the domestic Scottish market – while a source of some pride for a brand like Famous Grouse which can claim market leadership in the “home of whisky” – is not particularly enticing for the major international drinks conglomerates. Perhaps fortunately for our livers, the vast bulk of our whisky is exported. The brand behemoths would rather reach out to rapidly growing markets in Latin America and Asia where the newly affluent, status-obsessed have a yen (or should that be a Chinese yuan?) for luxury brands. America still remains the biggest market for Scotch, though. It seems Madmen-influenced young men are reaching for a stiffener – especially after eye-popping actress Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan in the TV series, fronted a campaign for Diageo. Last year, global exports in whisky increased in value by 12 per cent to £4.2 billion. As a comparison, Scottish oil exports are worth about £7bn a year.

Yet, despite the obvious opportunity of emerging markets thirsty for Scotch, it does seem odd that Scottish culture isn’t part of the pitch. When US brands “coca-colanised” the globe, “American-ness” was intrinsic to the appeal. You weren’t drinking a dark, sugary, fizzy, caffeinated liquid: you were enjoying authentic American culture. It was “the real thing”. Equally, American agencies such as McCann and JWT built their own hugely successful international businesses as they sold American values into the global market.

Why didn’t that happen in Scotland? When I was a young adman, the first agency I worked for handled Bells Scotch Whisky and had held the account for over 30 years. “Afore ye go” became especially apposite, though. The business went south, literally, in the scandal that took Bells’ ownership into United Distillers and then, illegally, into Guinness. It seems such an innocent time too. Guilty executives like Ernest Saunders and Ivan Boesky actually went to jail for their corporate misdemeanours. (Admittedly, Saunders was sentenced to five years for stock market fraud but, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he was released after ten months. He became the only person in history to make a full recovery from the disease.)

Today, from its marketing base in Harlow, Bells looks lost. Staggering across a cultural no-man’s-land from Jools Holland to Help for Heroes, it’s been firing off ideas as fast as it gets through marketing directors.

I don’t wish to delve into the complexities of the “cringe” attached to traditional Scottish culture. However, it does seem that – faced with international competition or expanding into new territories – there’s a tendency for Scottish brands to downplay, if not abandon, their roots.

Even mass-market brands that are uniquely strong in Scotland have treated the issue gingerly. It’s been a long time since Irn-Bru was “Made in Scotland from Girders”. Tennents used to be about homecoming – a brand that was always “waiting there for you”. This underlying brand truth probably had its final fling in about 1990, with the famous commercial using the Dougie Maclean song Caledonia – still by far the most popular film on the Tennents’ YouTube channel. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, these Irn-Bru and Tennents concepts were created outwith Scotland by London agency BMP.

Arguably, as “foreign brands” assaulted the Scottish market, our brands competed by becoming more like them – more generically “creative” and less distinctively, emotionally Scottish. By the same token, this normative process perhaps lowered the “cultural” entry bar for other non-Scots brands.

Unarguably, the end result has been that there are not just fewer distinctively Scottish brands. There are fewer Scottish brands altogether.

Ultimately, you can’t blame businesses for following their own short-term, perhaps short-sighted, self-interest. Profit is their concern, not national culture. The real trouble is that the behaviour of brand owners suggests they think there’s not much commercial gain in Caledonian connections: people don’t aspire to imbibe “Scottishness” in the way that Coke addicts slurp down the American Dream. Inevitably, part of the issue revolves around how corporate control has slipped out of Scotland – decision-makers are disconnected from the culture of country of origin.

And yet, there are signs that Scottish innovators may be making a come-back. A gallus wee brand like beer revolutionaries BrewDog consistently punches above its weight and Williams’ craft ales are spreading brotherly love wherever fresh thinking and fine quality are appreciated.

But perhaps there’s something else we all need to appreciate. Brands are not lifestyle choices, they are engines of economy. Perhaps it’s time for us to support – not just the businesses which invest north of the Border – but the brands which are invested in Scotland.